The many facets of shame in intimate partner sexual violence

ACSSA Research Summary No. 1 – January 2012

Shame in the trauma context

The literature suggests that the particular type of shame felt by victim/survivors of traumatic events, such as sexual assault, is a concept that goes beyond merely feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed about something. In contrast to these relatively mild sensations, the post-trauma experience of shame is described as something that can affect the victim's core perception of their self and identity. Following a traumatic event such as sexual assault, shame can incorporate a sense of disgust, humiliation and negative comparisons of the self with others (Feiring & Taska, 2005; Rahm et al., 2006). Shame can cause a person to feel alienated, worthless, and stigmatised (Rahm et al., 2006). This has the potential to erode a person's self-esteem in a way that can be ongoing and destructive. Shame, in this sense, has been identified as a dimension of post-traumatic syndromes and can be acute or chronic in nature (Wilson et al., 2006).

The relationship between shame and guilt

Guilt often accompanies shame in the trauma experience (Feiring & Taska, 2005; Wilson et al., 2006). The two can be distinguished by understanding that while both are self-conscious feelings, shame impacts on the core self, reflecting real or perceived appraisals of self-worth while guilt focuses on particular behaviours or actions that are understood as causing the failure rather than the whole self as an object of appraisal (Feiring & Taska, 2005; Wilson et al., 2006). Shame therefore has a more encompassing impact, in that the entire self seems flawed or there is an omnipresent sense of failure, that some ideal or standard has not been achieved (Feiring & Taska, 2005). The destructive aspects of shame in the context of intimate partner sexual violence reflect the enormity of the problem faced by a victim who has to deal with a sense of their entire being as less worthwhile or disgraced.

Shamed into isolation

Shame in a post-traumatic sense is often associated with feelings of wanting to hide away, avoid scrutiny or isolate oneself from the perceived judgements of others (Feiring & Taska, 2005; Rahm et al., 2006; Wilson et al., 2006). It is an inward-focused emotion but is often reflected in external body language such as a reluctance to look people in the eye, or to shy away. Although body language such as this can provide clues to professionals working with victims/survivors of sexual violence, (Rahm et al., 2006), to consider shame and its causes this desire to hide away and isolate oneself can hinder identification of sexual violence, as the victim is less likely to volunteer information that may lead to increased questioning or examination.

As noted earlier, feelings of shame are exacerbated when the attack is perpetrated by an intimate partner (Culbertson & Dehle, 2001; Parkinson, 2008). When an intimate partner inflicts the sexual violence, there is an additional element of shame in the perceived failure of social expectations around an intimate partnership. This is explored in the following section.